Cannon Fodder Revisited – Intro

August 9, 2012

It’s been a very long time since I played Cannon Fodder. Probably early 1995 was the last time I played it in anger. Then I betrayed my beloved Amiga and went to the PC, lured by the shiny vistas of Doom and that was that. I “sold” my Amiga to my mother. However as with most things I “sold” to her I don’t recall ever seeing any actual cash from the process. If you knew my mother, this would not come as a surprise.

Anyhow this is a post about the one decent parent I have, and how we bonded over the Amiga. While we have disparate tastes for the most part, with me spending days staring at the wonders of Championship Manager while people looked on confused as to why I was playing a spreadsheet, we did share a few interests on the game front.

When my Dad and I heard about Cannon Fodder we were quite excited. I was already a hardened fan of Sensible Software at this point. As a football fan, Sensible Soccer (and later Sensible World of Soccer) was a huge deal to my friends and I. My Dad however, wasn’t a fan. Cannon Fodder was his indoctrination into the mighty Sensible Software who, let’s face it, if you were an Amiga fan back in the day, were arguably one of the best developers for the platform.

Given the controversy that surrounds games these days, it’s quite quaint to look back and remember the fuss surrounding the game. You see the Royal British Legion use a poppy for their symbol. Creating a war game with that as a symbol was considered an affront to all that was good and pure, and the papers had the temerity to complain about the decency of it all as a woman flaunted her breasts a few pages away, with the always rational Daily Star saying:

The poppy is a sacred reminder of the men and women who gave their lives in two world wars. How sickening to see it being abused to sell a savage computer game. The distributors say the poppy is there “to remind the customer that war is no joke.” That’s just publicity writer’s hypocrisy. Computer game designers compete to glorify war (emphasis added) and viciousness. How dare they use the poppy to turn truth on its head.

Make sure you don’t buy this shameful game.

The controversy was so great in fact that Sensible Software were forced to add this graphic at the very start of the game under the threat of legal action. You do not mess with the Royal British Legion. They fought in the war, you know!

You do not mess with the ROYAL BRITISH LEGION

The fact is, Cannon Fodder did not in any way glorify war. Quite the opposite in fact. You’re given little men to control. In a war. They carry through from mission to mission. You grow very attached. Sometimes when you kill an enemy, rather than just disappearing, they will lay there, dying. Crying out in pain. This was never a game that tried to glorify war. Given the atrocities we see carried out in games regularly today, it’s funny to think this was ever controversial. At E3 earlier this year every other game had vivid recreations of throats being slit and people being murdered with no attempt to relay any sort of emotional impact. You just glide from one atrocity to the next with the flick of the controller.

Playing Cannon Fodder was one of very few occasions where a game was so affecting it almost moved me to tears. You see I had Jops, one of the starting soldiers, still alive a fair few missions into the game. In fact I had lost NOBODY yet. Between missions, you sit on this screen to the right. At the top you have the score. Home and away. Away are the enemies. Home are your guys. A score is kept. Notice that hill in the picture to the right? Well you see aside from the stream of men at the bottom circling it who are your soldiers, (Limited numbers are added over the course of the game), crosses appear on the hill to commemorate those you have lost. As the game continues, the hill becomes an upsetting reminder of all those who gave their lives in the war. Yes, it’s a silly video game, yes the graphics are poor by today’s standards, but that hill slowly filling with crosses between missions was one of the most emotionally engaging visuals in all of video game history, and I have no doubt will continue to be so. It made you feel loss. It visualised the casualties for you, all those virtual lives lost. It showed you the cost. After a few missions, with me carefully keeping everyone alive… I lost Jops! I can still remember it. There was a fire fight. We got through it. I looked at the list of my soldiers. He was gone. Jops was gone. I didn’t even see it happen! I was shocked. I finished the level quite disheartened, and there it was. Jops‘ name scrolled up the “Lost in Service” screen. Such sadness evoked by a video game. Then the final hammer blow. A solitary white cross was now on the hill. I just sat there and stared at it. Jops‘ name now listed under “Heroes” on the top left.

If you call that glorifying war, I call you a liar.

With great enthusiasm my Dad and I waited for release day. Now back then, release days were fluid. There weren’t definite release days. With marketing and promotion nowhere near the business it is now, games just sort of magically appeared in shops when they were finished. Games were still pushed to market when they weren’t ready, but it was less of an issue. There was one decent local independent game store we supported which was about a 30 minute round trip away. This made just casually going there annoying just to find it wasn’t out (which we did once) so many, many phone calls were placed.

“Is it in yet?” “No!” The following day: “Is it in yet?” NO!” This went on for a while until one day, miraculously, it was! If I recall, it was a Friday that the shop finally got it in. I was a young petrol station employee, who worked weekends… However the timing was good as it was my weekend off meaning I would have ALL WEEKEND to soak in the marvel that was Cannon Fodder.

My Dad was buying the game though, meaning I would have to wait to play it, and as my mother had buggered off at this point, and my Dad and I were struggling to keep a roof over our heads, the extravagance of buying two copies was just not an option. So for that first little while I could watch my Dad until he took a break, and then I’d get to play for a bit, and that’s how it’d be until I got the cracked version off a mate a while later. (Intro screen pictured to the right.)

I remember grabbing the box from the shelf and handing it to my Dad, him paying for it and me holding it excitedly on the way home. Ah, those were simple days.

When we got home he unpacked the box, admired the shiny bullet keyring which as far as I’m aware my Dad still has. (Side note: I remember being rather disappointed that when I rushed to get Sensible World of Soccer in much the same fashion when it came out, that I didn’t get a little keyring or something too.) Then it was time to fire the game up, to be greeted by a song and intro sequence that would become the stuff of legend.

I can’t remember if my Dad ever completed the game. (I do remember he completed Syndicate,something I never managed.) I KNOW I didn’t. To this day whenever I hear the word Skidoo, I think of “My Beautiful Skidoo”, a level in the game that I remember trying to beat with my Dad and failing many, many times.

The Amiga was a great computer, so far ahead of the PC at the time and, in some ways, still is. There were many classic games, of which I may revisit many, many more on here as time goes on if the mood takes me. However for me, Cannon Fodder was THE game that defined the machine and the generation. When emulators first started appearing, it was the first game I grabbed hold of and played again. It wasn’t my favourite Amiga game, but it was the pinnacle of the platform in my opinion. It was such a unique game that hasn’t really ever been replicated. Not only that but it contains my favourite piece of game music of all time. In fact while writing this I’ve had the emulator running and playing that music for most of it. Rest in peace, Richard Joseph.

So, this is all leading to the fact that for a long time I’ve wanted to play Cannon Fodder again, properly. It took a Twitter friend saying “You should do that!” when I casually mentioned writing about the experience that I decided, in honour of my Dad and the great memories our time with this game gave me, I would play through it and document the experience. See if I can finish the game. (Not bloody likely I would imagine!)

Part 1 will be coming very soon. In fact this was SUPPOSED to be a short intro and then part 1 (since I’m already a couple of missions in), only it snowballed, like so many things I think will be brief, so I figure I’ll split it.

Let’s see if I can keep Jops alive for a while, for old times sake…

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